The Washington Post

The Trump administra­tion sidelined experts in writing car pollution rules, an EPA watchdog found.

Report may boost Biden administra­tion’s efforts to reduce emissions

- BY DINO GRANDONI dino.grandoni@washpost.com

The Trump administra­tion sidelined career staffers at the Environmen­tal Protection Agency when weakening pollution rules for new passenger vehicles, according to a federal watchdog report.

The EPA’S inspector general found top political leaders at the agency failed to properly document and consider the concerns of staff experts while unwinding standards for tailpipe emissions set under President Barack Obama.

The report, released Tuesday, may provide fresh fodder for the Biden administra­tion to tighten mileage and greenhouse gas standards for new automobile­s as part of a broader effort to phase out internal-combustion engines and drasticall­y cut the nation’s climate-warming emissions.

President Biden’s team is in the midst of negotiatio­ns with carmakers, autoworker­s and environmen­talists for new pollution standards for new vehicles, aiming to protect factory jobs and cut emissions. The industry wants generous government incentives for producing cleaner cars, while labor leaders want to stave off job losses during the transition to electric vehicles.

The outcome of the talks will be crucial for U.S. climate goals because the transporta­tion sector is the nation’s largest source of emissions, according to the EPA.

In 2020, the Trump administra­tion finalized a rule compelling car companies to improve the average fuel economy of their fleets by only 1.5 percent a year — a step back from the 5 percent annual increase set under Obama. Officials argued that forcing automakers to improve the efficiency too quickly would make cars too expensive, prodding people to keep driving older, less safe vehicles.

On paper, the lower emissions standards were signed jointly by the EPA and the Transporta­tion Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administra­tion. But according to the inspector general’s report, EPA Administra­tor Scott Pruitt decided that NHTSA, and not his own experts, would complete “all modeling and analysis on behalf of both agencies.”

The result was that many EPA staffers felt shut out of the process of making one of the agency’s most important rules. One manager at its Office of Air and Radiation told investigat­ors that “no one at the EPA ever saw NHTSA’S model or input files” in the six months leading up to the release of the final rule.

Jeff Alson, a former engineer at the EPA’S vehicles lab in Ann Arbor, Mich., who retired in 2018, said Tuesday that staffers at the two entities worked closely to set greenhouse gas standards for new cars and trucks under Obama.

That kind of collaborat­ion didn’t happen under President Donald Trump, he said.

“I feel like it really confirmed what I had seen,” Alson said of the inspector general’s investigat­ion.

The Trump administra­tion’s decision also meant the EPA failed to properly analyze the rollback’s impact on Americans especially vulnerable to auto emissions, including poor and minority communitie­s often situated near highways and children susceptibl­e to developing asthma, according to the report.

Environmen­tal groups cheered the report’s release, as did Democrats in Congress who previously raised concerns about how the Trump administra­tion watered down auto standards.

“Like many things in life, how you conduct yourself matters. This is especially true when it comes to agencies engaged in federal rulemaking,” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-del.), who chairs the Senate Environmen­t and Public Works Committee and who initially requested the inspector general’s review. “Government actions affect the health and well-being of people across our country and our planet, so it’s critical that these decisions are made through a thoughtful process.”

Alice Henderson, a senior attorney at the Environmen­tal Defense Fund, said the EPA must now “step up to its statutory role and responsibi­lity to protect human health” as it again considers auto emissions standards.

Before the end of the month, the agency is expected to restore California’s authority to set its own car pollution rules, which was revoked under Trump. And Biden’s EPA chief, Michael Regan, said during a congressio­nal hearing Wednesday that the agency is aiming to propose new nationwide limits on tailpipe emissions in “mid-july.”

Nick Conger, a spokesman for Regan, said the agency “appreciate­s” the inspector general’s probe and “values transparen­cy in the rulemaking process.” deliberate,

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